In the last decade, the Latino workforce in the state of Rhode Island has grown by 40% and by 2040 Latinos are expected to be nearly 24% of the total Rhode Island workforce. Rhode Island has a relatively large community of immigrants, many of whom emigrated from the Dominican Republic. One in eight Rhode Islanders was born in another country, while one in five residents is a native-born American who has at least one immigrant parent. Immigrants in Rhode Island have contributed over a billion dollars in taxes. As consumers, immigrants add billions of dollars to Rhode Island’s economy. Immigrant entrepreneurs in Rhode Island generate hundreds of millions of dollars in business revenue.
A report by the Latino Policy Institute, Rhode Island recommends that the state improve access to health care and insurance, the strengthening of workers protections, and efforts to create inclusive statewide communications and engagement for communities of color. The top seven languages spoken in Rhode Island are English, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Haitian Creole, Chinese, and Khmer, reports the institute. The Latino Policy Institute recommends that the state government expand its efforts in communication, engagement and information to all Rhode Islanders in an appropriate linguistic and cultural manner.
The Rhode Island Latino Arts Center was founded by Marta V. Martínez, who noticed that a strong Latino community presence was missing in the state when she moved from Washington, D.C in 1988. Martínez, organized the first statewide Hispanic Heritage Week in the Fall of 1989, which became a month-long celebration in 1991. HHCRI continues to promote and support local Latino art and artists, and commemorates National Hispanic Heritage Month every year from September 15-October 15. At the time of the event, 50,000 latinos lived in Rhode Island. As of 2021, there are now more than 160,000 latinos living in the state. The creation of the organization and its growth has enabled Latino creatives to have a space to share their art with the community.
The arts center has helped propel the art of many small latino artists in the community and curated an environment that promotes diverse and creative artistic narratives. The center has grown into a place “where you will find everything to do with the arts, history and cultural heritage of latinos in Rhode Island.” Among the vibrant community programs and special events, the center offers La Galeria del Pueblo, RI Latino Books Award, Teatro del Pueblo, RI Latino Artists Network, RI Latinx Cine, Nuestras Raices, Community Platicas and the Traveling Puertas.
Latina Republic had the opportunity to interview Marta V. Martinez, the center’s Executive Director and Founder, who detailed the importance of the center in Rhode Island and the various events that are held there.
“In the early days, I used to close the shop and walk around the neighborhood where I was located and I discovered a very strong Caribbean presence, the majority being from the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. Today, most of the community still has Caribbean roots so the music we present reflects a rich blend of cultures.
For example, we offer Latin percussion, drumming, hip hop, poetry, spoken word, and storytelling by artists that are all from the Caribbean. The artists that come to us reflect who lives here,” says Martinez.
As a relatively new and growing community, the center encourages Latino artists to explore their identity through their artistic narratives. Martínez explains:
“Our community is so young and without going into detail, my oral history work revealed that the first community was Dominican, and that they arrived in the late fifties, early sixties. So it’s a very young community. To this day, the narrative is, Who am I? Am I American? Am I Dominican? Am I both? Then there’s the fact that most Dominicans are dark skinned. So am I black or am I not? It’s the two worlds. Am I here? Am I there?
When I go back home, I’m American and when I’m in the US, I’m not, and then when I’m here, am I black or am I Dominican? It’s shifted from who am I? In the past year people have become more empowered by the Black Lives Matter movement.
I have noticed a lot of the artists, instead of asking who they are, are now saying, I am a black Latino or I am a proud black Dominican or black and all of the African roots within all of those cultures I just mentioned. They have all come out, black Hondurans, black Peruvians….they’re all just coming forward and they are united in that message.
We’re not all Mexican, we’re not all brown. That’s the message I’ve been trying to say, but really this past year has really brought that message that everybody reflects and now that message is coming out even stronger within the artists.”
La Galería del Pueblo
La Galería del Pueblo is a center under RILA in Central Falls, Rhode Island that showcases artists’ work and provides them with a platform that allows them to sell their art. The center also hosts workshops, artist talks, poetry readings and classes that are open to the public. Martinez detailed the beginnings of La Galería:
“At first, there were several diverse artists who would come in and say, I’m not a painter or a dancer or a singer, but I made these beautiful little objects, wood carvings, ceramic and all that. I realized that they needed a place, too. It’s a little space and we invite artists when they make something just to bring it in and sell it. We don’t have a huge staff and we don’t have a huge location.
We don’t go out and really purchase art or items to resell, but it’s our way of supporting the artisans in the community. Everything that we do is to support Rhode Island Latino artists, so it’s not like we bring in any work from California or New York or Florida. Everything that you see there is created by a local artist and the money goes right back to them because we don’t take any of it. We have jewelry, postcards, paintings, screen prints and those kinds of things.”
In her work and contribution to the community, Martínez found herself becoming a part of the growing history in Rhode Island. As the community began to come together, she began to accumulate stories and experiences of individuals in the community that contributed to the latino community’s growing presence. The center began to host walking tours which allowed visitors to walk through the areas that were relevant and important to the development and growth of the latino community.
“So that came out of the oral history work that I did and I realized I was writing the history of the Latino community. As I started sharing it back out with those who I interviewed, they started to realize that becoming part of this history was not just important, but that they wanted their kids to also learn it and contribute as time went on.
A lot of the history took place in a neighborhood called Broad Street, that’s where I used to walk up and down looking for a Mexican community and found a large community of Dominicans. I found that out because there was a family, a woman who was part of the first Dominican family, and she helped build the community as she opened the first bodega.
Out of that came the first Latino restaurant, the first church that provided Spanish language services and all of those things. It all happened on Broad Street. So I bring people to Broad Street and I just kind of tell that story as I walk up and down.
Unfortunately, a lot of the locations that were “the first” are gone because there was a lot of development on Broad Street in the 1980s and a lot of the buildings were demolished. So we decided to bring those stories alive and one of the actresses in our theater program has taken on the role of the first Dominican woman who was one of two Dominicans, a couple, who first settled in the area.
The woman, the actress who created the monologue has read the transcript and we’ve talked a lot, so she is able to tell the story as if she was here in the early days.
And so she has become her. When I give my tour, she comes with me and I talk about what I see now and then she tells me what it used to look like when she was here in the 1960s. Together we have a conversation and we try to present a picture to the participants that kind of shows the two worlds of what was and what is Broad Street.
Those are the kinds of things that literally bring people into the street to let them experience and understand that it’s a safe space. It goes against the negative image that we have as all criminals and that the neighborhood is not a safe place to live. The tour uplifts latinos in the community and is a living history as told through the conversation that we have.”
El Teatro del Pueblo
El Teatro del Pueblo is a newly formed theatre group at RILA, the first in the state dedicated to hosting bilingual shows after having local latino artists plan their own theatre company to tell the stories of the community.
“El Teatro del Pueblo is a group that kind of came out of artists coming together. We worked with the Trinity Repertory Company and the Latino actors quickly realized they wanted their own theater group. All of a sudden all these theater makers came out of the woodwork that I didn’t know existed.
It’s almost like if you build it, they will come. I supported Trinity with its bilingual production that they wanted to put on their own stage and we were looking for Latino actors and they came out to audition. More people started coming out and saying, why don’t we have our own company?
So I created a black box space behind the cultural center. It’s an old garage, carriage house, whatever you want to call it, and I converted it into a black box because that’s really all that we can handle right now as opposed to a stage.
The group came together and they came up with the Teatro del Pueblo name. Out of that group, artists, directors and scriptwriters started coming forward and helping each other. Right now we’re creating a playwriting circle and we’re going to start presenting original plays. So that’s coming.
It’s happened in partnership with Trinity Rep, but we’re going to start creating our own theater here. So it would be the only and the first bilingual theater group in the state.”
The center found the pandemic especially challenging as the shift to social distancing and confinement to online spaces made it difficult for creatives to take advantage of the spaces that we’re available to them at the center. Some classes being taught had to move online, but others were unadaptable to the switch.
“We’re trying to support and encourage artists who want to do art for a living to use our space. When the pandemic happened, we shut down as an organization and the artists were hit the hardest because they did not qualify for unemployment, all those things that we could as full time workers.
We tried to continue to support them and we were able to get some of Cares (federal) funding and we started offering as many online classes as possible. It didn’t always work. Our drumming teacher said it wouldn’t work for him, so he had a hard time.
We had them come together and talk about what they were experiencing to see how we could help them. We created a group that met on a regular basis, about 18 of us, and we supported each other. Why don’t you do this? Why don’t you try that? Maybe together we can do this.
It created some strong connections. I would also connect them to resources, so if there was any funding available I would share it with them. So that was how it affected us and we just opened up July 1st. We had our first drumming class. We’re going to start a drawing and painting class in the Fall. We’re slowly starting to bring everything back and hopefully we don’t have to shut down again.”
The Rhode Island Arts Center has begun to host its usual events and shows since the beginning of the pandemic, allowing artists to return to the center. Martinez revealed her plans to move the center to a larger location.
“Artists have been very supportive by coming along every time we move into a new location and also very vocal in saying ‘No, this isn’t big enough, we need a bigger space,’ and that’s good because it lets me know how to move forward.”
Kimberly is an undergraduate student majoring in Political Science at UCI. She grew up in a predominantly Latinx community in Southeast LA and is the daughter of two Honduran immigrants. Having seen the obstacles that many immigrants face first-hand has inspired her to pursue a career in immigration law. She hopes to amplify the voices of those in the community during a time where immigration has become one of the most polarizing issues in modern politics. Making sure that underrepresented stories and voices are heard is important in removing the negative stigma around the immigrant community and she hopes to contribute to this change.